Interview'This isn't Judaism 101'

An actor and a rabbi teamed up to make a Jewish podcast that’s not just for Jews

In the new weekly ‘Chutzpod,’ Sixth and I’s Rabbi Shira Stutman and ‘West Wing’ star Joshua Malina make light work of life’s heavy questions for Members of the Tribe – and friends

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Rabbi Shira Stutman and actor Joshua Malina are the new voices behind 'Chutzpod!' (Courtesy)
Rabbi Shira Stutman and actor Joshua Malina are the new voices behind 'Chutzpod!' (Courtesy)

NEW YORK — If you’ve ever wondered why gefilte fish became a thing or whether it’s okay to use the word “goyim,” then welcome to “Chutzpod!” a weekly podcast in which actor Joshua Malina and Rabbi Shira Stutman ponder life’s questions — big and small.

“There is a great line Josh had: We want to engage anyone who has a ‘hum’ in the back of their minds,” said Stutman during a joint video call with Malina and The Times of Israel. “I think if Josh and I have a superpower, it’s that we are able to take on serious topics and talk about ideas seriously, but with a sense of lightness that can make all people feel welcome.”

While the pair followed different career trajectories — Malina as an actor who starred in “The West Wing,” “The Big Bang Theory,” and “Shameless,” and Stutman as the founding rabbi of Sixth and I synagogue in Washington, DC — they both share a love for using Jewish texts and traditions to help reflect on current issues.

For example, in their first episode, which dropped January 7, Stutman and Malina discussed the question of what, or who, is considered “other,” and chatted about how the weekly Torah portion “Bo” might inform how people interact with one another — especially one year after the insurrection at the US Capitol. In doing so, they delved into the importance of listening to those with differing views. They also revealed their shared passion for reality television shows, with Stutman proposing they try out for “The Amazing Race.”

The show will feature surprise guests, including entertainers, lawmakers, and authors, and is geared toward everyone, no matter their level of observance or religion — it’s as much for Hebrew school scholars as those who  prefer shopping to shul.

“We’d like to reach out beyond the Jewish community to anyone who either has a friend, a loved one, a spouse who is Jewish, or even just someone of another faith or no faith at all. We’re trying to reach anyone who has any interest in how Jews might look at the world and interact with life,” said Malina, who attended religious school for eight years while growing up in Westchester, New York.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity.

The Times of Israel: So, you’re looking to reach observant Jews, secular Jews, and non-Jews alike.

Joshua Malina: It’s a very wide net indeed. It is challenging to remain interesting to everyone we just described. In developing the podcast, we had a variety of people of all sorts of backgrounds giving us feedback. How Jewish do we want it to be, was the question that kept coming up. How accessible was this material? If we make it more accessible do we lose people and if we make it less accessible do we lose people?

I went to an Orthodox yeshiva [religious school]. I’m not a Jewish scholar, but I’m certainly familiar with the texts. I kept saying to the rabbi that I want this to be interesting to me too. I want to make sure I’m learning. We didn’t want to make it Judaism 101 or repeat what you might have learned elsewhere.

Rabbi Shira Stutman: The target audience is really people who have questions about what it means to be alive.

So if you are someone who is 100 percent not a spiritual person — and there are many people like that in the world — or if you are someone who is happy to go about your day and not think about how you could show up differently, or how you could make a change, then this is not your podcast.

However, there are some people who are just outside the tent that we’re trying to build, who aren’t sure they want to come in. I’ve been watching Josh interact with some people on Twitter who tweeted that they listened to our first episode and they only barely grasped what was going on, but they’re coming back again.

Malina: I know. I replied to one person and said, ‘Hang in, we’ll improve,’ because it’s not on them. It’s on us to make it interesting and comprehensible to the listeners.

Twitter gives you endless feedback, both welcome and not welcome. Considering both of you have public images, how much of it do you pay attention to?

Malina: It comes with the territory. I have built up such a rhino hide that I am not only impervious to negative feedback, I seek it out. I exalt in it. I really am a rare breed.

Recently the rabbi, the executive producer Tim Shovers and I were on a Zoom call, and I read an email that was very negative about the podcast. I saw the rabbi’s face fall. And I said, no this is great. It means we’re provocative. If somebody hates you, you are at least doing something interesting. This person not only hated it, they sat down to express what they didn’t like about it and, by the end of the email, they also said, ‘I’d be happy to be a guest on your show.’

I think turning off feedback is a fine approach if that is part of your self-care ritual, but it’s not mine. I like to hear how people respond — good or bad.

Sixth and I’s Rabbi Shira Stutman. (Courtesy of Sixth and I/via JTA)

Stutman: If someone makes a comment, ‘I didn’t understand some of what you said,’ we really take that to heart. However, I do think the hateful things, the hateful comments that we can’t do anything about, are really the ones we have to let roll off our backs.

Speaking of hate, in your last episode about the Torah portion “Bo,” you got into a conversation about the tendency to otherize when things go bad. Rabbi, you spoke about the need to resist that tendency and Joshua, you talked about God’s call to smite the enemy. Who, or what, do you consider to be real enemies now?

Stutman: I think the word enemy is a really strong word, but I think one obvious answer is white supremacy and the way that functions in our country both explicitly and systemically.

Malina: It’s hard to answer, but I think the question is important. In the next episode the rabbi says that perhaps we’re going to touch on antisemitism in every single episode. She said it kind of jokingly, but, I said yes, I think that’s going to happen because there is no scarcity of it.

Antisemitsm has been around for a good long time and it looks like it’s here to stay. But it’s important to parse what is antisemitism because once you start looking for it you can find it everywhere. It’s important to parse what is a serious threat, what is just ignorance and what maybe isn’t even antisemitism. It gets sketchy when you get into criticism of Israel because there are distinctions to be made between legitimate criticism and the very frequent overlap of antisemitism.

With the rise in antisemitism, worries over the future of democracy in this country, and COVID-19 and the Omicron variant, many people feel they are in the trash compactor scene in “Star Wars.” Do you think of podcasting as a balm for people?

Stutman: I was thinking about that when I was falling asleep last night. We didn’t mention COVID at all in our episode this week, or last week. I wondered if we should put an addendum on that says we know Omicron is bearing down on us, or whether we should we put in a mi sheberach [public prayer for health and well-being] segment where we pray for people? And I thought, you know, it’s okay to be, as you said, a balm. It’s okay to just have a moment out of time where we talk about trees and veer into tough subjects and then come back to laughter.

Yes, there is a lot to worry about in this world. There is also a lot to be joyous about. It’s not that we should close our eyes to all of the terrible things in this world. It’s that we shouldn’t close our eyes to all of the beauty.

Joshua Molina signs his name on the wall of Sixth and I, a historic Washington, DC, synagogue, at a Shavuot event in 2016. (Courtesy of Sixth and I/via JTA)

Malina: One of the greatest acts of self-care that I performed during the pandemic was that I agreed to do the podcast, because I initially said no. I didn’t know if I had the bandwidth to engage on the level that would be required. Then a couple days later I wrote back and I said if you haven’t found anyone else, I want to change my mind. I want to do this. Something in me realized I could get something out of the process of engaging with the rabbi every week.

I was just saying to my mom today, I’m learning a lot from Rabbi Shira. For a Jew who takes pride in living a substantive Jewish life, I don’t engage with Torah in a regular way. Now I’m doing that with an incredible teacher. I’m learning and I’m being emotionally buoyed by these discussions.

I can’t believe that I almost said no to the opportunity.

Stutman: The second he said yes we called Sarah Silverman and said, ‘We’re sorry.’

Can you talk about how the show addresses questions of faith, what it means to be a Jew, and the difference between culture and religion?

Stutman: I do think one question that is alive for many Jews in contemporary America is the question of faith. Do I believe in God? If I do, what does God look like? Why do bad things happen to good people? Then I think the secondary question is, what is Judaism? Especially for those who, because we live in a Christian country, think of it as a religion like Christianity. So there are questions of faith but there are also questions of what does it mean to be a Jew when Judaism isn’t congruous with Christianity.

I really hope we expand the understanding of what it means to question one’s faith, to questions of practice, to questions of status. What does it mean to live a Jewish life, but not have a Jewish mother or Jewish father, or any Jewish parentage at all? These are all 21st-century questions that we grapple with.

Would you say you’re both learning from each other?

Stutman: If you listen to the first episode, there are at least two or three times where Josh takes a text that I have looked at 75,000 times in my life and he is able to pull something out of it that I have never seen. That is indicative of what good Torah study looks like. If a Torah class is just me, the rabbi, lecturing without people adding their own insights and experiences, then we haven’t achieved the goal. I think these conversations are made 100,000 times richer by the fact that there are two voices going back and forth. I think often the eyes that are newer are the eyes that go deeper.

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